Bartok - Concerto for Orchestra, Dance Suite, 2 Rhapsodies
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Cat No: CHSA5189
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 27th October 2017
WorksConcerto for orchestra, Sz116 BB123
Dance Suite, Sz77 BB86
Rhapsody no.1 for violin and orchestra, BB94b
Rhapsody no.2 for violin and orchestra, BB96b
ArtistsJames Ehnes (violin)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
The central piece in this recording is the Concerto for Orchestra, the largest work that Bartók completed during the last five years of his life and described by the composer, in the programme notes for its 1944 premiere, as ‘a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one’.
It is joined by the Dance Suite, the immediate predecessor, among Bartók’s few works for full orchestra without a soloist, of the Concerto for Orchestra, though by more than two decades; and by the violin Rhapsodies, the colourful folk influences of which are revealed by James Ehnes, a specialist in the repertoire, who already has recorded the complete sonatas as well as the concertos for violin and for viola to critical acclaim (CHAN 10690, 10705, 10752, 10820).
1Concerto for Orchestra - I. Introduzione
2Concerto for Orchestra - II. Giuoco delle coppie
3Concerto for Orchestra - III. Elegia
4Concerto for Orchestra - IV. Intermezzo interrotto
5Concerto for Orchestra - V. Finale
6First Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra - I. 'Lassu'
7First Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra - II. 'Friss'
8Part II of the First Rhapsody, with alternative ending
9Second Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra - I. 'Lassu'
10Second Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra - II. 'Friss'
11Dance Suite - I. Moderato...
12Dance Suite - II. Allegro molto...
13Dance Suite - III. Allegro vivace...
14Dance Suite - IV. Molto tranquillo...
15Dance Suite - V. Comodo
16Dance Suite - VI. Finale...
Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic are ever-alert accompanists to Ehnes’s playing, but it’s in the big framing works that they really come into their own. In the Dance Suite, composed for the 1923 celebrations to mark 50 years since the unification of Buda, Óbuda and Pest to form Budapest, Gardner and his players dig deep into their tonal resources for playing of real gutsiness. The often darkly suggestive colours are exceptionally vivid, at times redolent of the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin which Bartók was working on at the same time. In the second movement, the snarling brass is perfectly judged, yet there’s also a real sense of exuberant energy, for example in the central third movement, which also incorporates some deftly realised magical textures. The elusively tranquil fourth movement evokes the sinister world of Bluebeard’s Castle, shaded to perfection by Gardner, while the Bergen players clearly relish and rise to the challenges of the episodic finale. Evoking folk music not just from Central and Eastern Europe but also North Africa, this is above all music of celebration, and for all its dark undertones the Bergen Philharmonic capture the overarching jubilant mood to perfection.
Even more impressive is Gardner’s traversal of Bartók’s most famous work, the Concerto for Orchestra of 1943. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, this is an orchestral showpiece par excellence, the soloists being the various sections and members of the orchestra itself. Yet it’s also the work of a refugee from war-torn Europe, physically frail and depressed; Koussevitsky’s commission revived Bartók’s spirits, but there’s a dark undertow to the music that emerges most obviously in the central Elegia, often lost sight of in many of the showier performances in the catalogue. Not so here: even amid the ebullience of the ‘Game of Couples’ second movement, and the spoof-Shostakovich of the ‘Interrupted Intermezzo’ fourth, there’s the sense of a continuous narrative thread with a fundamental seriousness of purpose. Yet the playing itself is as assured and commanding as you’ll encounter anywhere, with some outstanding woodwind solos, and glorious strings and incisive brass. The swirling, shimmering textures that accompany the trumpets’ return in the second half of the second movement are thrilling, and the playing in both the scherzo movements is full of wit. The darker first and third movements have real depth, both textural and expressive, while the Finale is a real thriller, expertly paced, faultlessly balanced and with playing of a virtuosically high standard. This is above all a tremendously cogent account of Bartók’s Concerto, and one to set alongside such greats as those from Iván Fischer and Zoltán Kocsis: proof that it’s not just the Hungarians who are alive to the underlying spirit of this music. Is it too much to hope that Gardner and his orchestra might give us a Bluebeard’s Castle in due course?
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